Book Review: Left Turn

Media Bias.

What if you had the power to change history? What if you could influence the future? How ’bout an election or two? Let’s assume that’s possible for the nonce. Would you use that power for good or evil? Would having the power corrupt you, sooner, later, or eventually? And here’s the kicker – would you know if you had it, and if you knew, would it make any difference in your behavior? That’s a lot of what ifs. But that’s the price you pay for reading a book that can turn conventional wisdom on its ear, as does Left Turn, a book by the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at UCLA, Professor Tim Groseclose. But the more interesting question the book raises, is how does this affect the fight over our 2nd Amendment rights?

Full disclosure(s): I am a Conservative. And I know the author, in fact, I’m the guy that built his website. Oh, and in the first few pages, Tim gets his own bias out-of-the-way, he freely admits to being a Conservative. But he’s also a respected professor of both Political Science and Economics. And some years back, it occurred to him that there might be a way to objectively quantify not just the existence of bias in the media, but to determine the degree to which that bias exists in a given media outlet.

Now for just a moment (and before you ready the tar and feathers), this is NOT going to be yet another “Obama is evil” or “Progressives are what is wrong with America” diatribe. Nope. I’m going to try to play this one straight down the middle. And feel free to hold me to task, if you feel I don’t give BOTH sides a fair shake here. Having said that…

Opinions are like…um, sphincters. Everybody’s got one or two. And our opinions are formed by our experiences, the people with which we associate – our friends, families, teachers, co-workers – and (to put things in computer terms) our input sources. Data in/opinions out. It’s just this side of indisputable, for instance, that if you live with a bunch of hamsters, say, you’d be far more attuned to stories about hamsters, more aware about animal abuse stories, and more in tune with others who have similar backgrounds. Agreed?

Politics works the same way. Grow up in a blue-collar part of town, you’re likely to vote more in tune with your neighbors. But our opinions are shaped by more influences than just our friends and families. The media (in all it’s forms) accounts for some serious influence all by itself.

It’s like this: Lets say some politician wants to build a park and playground in your neighborhood. That’s good, right? Maybe. What if they want to build it next to your backyard? Or they want to use eminent domain to take your family homestead? Well, that’s different, right? So let’s acknowledge there can be at least two sides to every story. Let’s see if we can agree on this: the way we first learn of a story, person, or issue can color our perceptions. Let’s go back to the park issue.

If the first time you heard about the park was on the evening news, and the lede went something like “The city revealed plans today to raze an aging neighborhood for a much-needed area park, playground and recreation area, rejuvenating our city and bringing jobs to the area.” I think it’s safe to say that most people would get behind that as a good thing. The story interviews some people in the area, a developer, and a city councilman. They’re all for it. They give about 30 seconds of air time to one nay-sayer, someone who will lose their home in the deal. But the tacit message the story communicates is that this plan is a good one, good for the city, neighborhood, and the children. Mustn’t forget the children.

But what if the first time you hear of this deal, it’s in the neighborhood weekly, a publication that generally takes a contrarian view of city politics – the stereotypical “alternative news weekly.” In this publication, they question the motives behind the deal, either implying or outright stating that the deal stinks to high heaven, and that the council, the developer and the mayor all in on this together, the fix is in, and hundreds of hard-working, blue-collar folks will lose their homes to The Man. Oh, and they cite a bunch of senior citizens that will be turned out into the cold. Mustn’t forget the old folks.

Your perception regarding this story will largely at least start with where you hear the news. Hear it on TV, it sounds like a great deal. Read it in the alternative paper, and it’s another example of political corruption and crony capitalism at it’s worst. Many people stop there, form an opinion and don’t see a need to change it. Some will do their own research, or read/listen to multiple sources. Others will find their lives touched by the deal directly (workers applying for construction jobs, homeowners faced with the loss of their property, etc.).

So by this example, you can see where the spin the media outlet puts on the story can affect the way the news is perceived by the public. In an ideal world, the news media would separate “opinion” and “editorial” from “news” and “facts.” In the real world, this never happens. (I’d say “rarely” but let’s be honest here, shall we?) So since at least SOME bias is a fact of life from every media outlet, the next best thing would be to know how much a given media outlet is biased, in which direction, and by how much.

This is where Groseclose’s book performs an invaluable service. The good professor has taken an analytical methodology which was designed by a fellow professor (who happens to be a Left-leaning academic) and used it on media outlets to determine their bias. Brilliant. It begs the question (sorry Magoo…I just had to), if our opinions are formed and influenced by the media, and the media is biased (but we can’t recognize that bias), then how can we tell if our opinions are biased, with or without the media?

See, the thing is, if you apply the same, open standard to everybody, you can get a baseline for who’s on which side and by how much. I don’t need to tell you, this makes for some fascinating conclusions. For instance, I’ll bet you knew, instinctively, that MSNBC was one of the most liberal media outlets in broadcasting. But did you know, for instance that ABC News is just a little left of center, and that Fox News is not nearly as uniformly conservative as most people believe? Or that USA Today and the Drudge Report are pretty much in the Center? Yep. It’s true. At least if you go by the data Groseclose presents, and he makes a pretty compelling case.

But it’s the conclusions he draws from this data that interest me, vis-à-vis gun rights. You see, Groseclose argues that, collectively, the media not only skews leftward by 20 to 25 points on his bias scale, but that this bias has influenced the outcome of elections by that same 20 to 25 points. To put it in simpler terms, Groseclose concludes that if the media were actually neutral, the country would vote (sans the bias) in approximately the way Texas votes now, factoring in that media bias.

Think about the implications to this. Just looking at a snapshot of one election, that would have given McCain the Presidency. (Of course, I’d argue that, without media bias playing a role in who wins the nomination, Obama might have faced Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson or Mike Huckabee instead of John McCain.)

The implications for gun laws are staggering. If we are electing politicians that are 20 or 15 points more liberal in every election, what do you think that’s doing to our gun laws? My gut tells me we’d have so-called “Constitutional Carry” in every state, and an end to laws creating “gun-free zones” across the land. Of course, places like New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco and Honolulu will always skew to a more liberal mindset than the Lands of “Flyover Country.” But were Chicago, say, 20 points less liberal, you might see an entire state with less restrictive gun laws.

Note, please, that I’m not saying media bias is, in and of itself, evil. It’s a fact of life. What IS evil, however, is when the media claims to be neutral, but is in fact biased. Doesn’t matter who they carry water for, left or right. Bias is distortion, and distortion is wrong. The only effective way to fight that bias is to recognize it exists and to try to determine how much is out there, so we can filter what we hear, see and read, factoring in that bias recognition, so we won’t be quite so influenced by bias (at least not without a fight.)

At this point, I’ll bet many of you are reading along, thinking, “Well, that bias stuff…that only affects other people. I don’t let media bias influence my decisions.” No? Well allow me to challenge you to a little test. Go to http://www.timgroseclose.com/calculate-your-pq/ and take the quiz. The score you get might surprise you. (Mine was statistically a zero, which puts me at the far right of the political spectrum. Surprised? I didn’t think so.) You can then click over to the “Famous PQs” page (PQ = Political Quotient) and see how your number compares with some famous representatives and senators.

Amongst all the talk about Heller and McDonald, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and ask ourselves, how different a nation would we be without media bias. I don’t like being lied to. And I don’t like spin. I’m perfectly capable of making up my mind on my own, thank you very much, without a biased media – on EITHER side – trying to influence my opinion with their bias.

Read Tim’s book, and I think you may come to the same conclusions I did, and start thinking about ways we might be able to end the undue influence of media outlets on our political process. I’m not suggesting a return to the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” That’s a cover for the party in power to squelch dissent by the other side. Nope. I think we need a little sunshine here, and get people both inside and outside the media to take off their rose-colored glasses and look at the media beast we are allowing to determine our futures.

comments

  1. avatar percynjpn says:

    Excellent idea for a book. Your comment that “if the media were actually neutral, the country would vote (sans the bias) in approximately the way Texas votes now” is sadly true; so many people who are in fact reasonable and able to think logically (i.e. not liberals) are still so easily brainwashed by the lamestream media that they swallow their leftist bull as fact, when it of course is usually no such thing. I come from a little suburb of S&W, MA; my family is Catholic, blue collar, conservative, patriotic. And yet my not-so- educated parents watch that vile, muck-raking “60 Minutes” religiously, and because they call themselves a “news” show, they simply accept it as truth, because – why would they lie? (I assume it’s still on as I live in Japan right now).

  2. avatar Totenglocke says:

    Not a fan of that test. It’s horribly repetitive (I think each question is repeated at least twice) and basing it only on bills that were voted on and not what your actual views are nullifies any actual opinions.

    1. avatar Magoo says:

      +1. Exactly.

      Many of the questions do not reflect actual matters of policy, but tactics and parliamentary procedure that break straight down party lines. Ideologically, they don’t mean anything at all. In a previous session the results could have broken exactly the other way. If the Obama administration backs it, it’s “liberal.” If the Bush administration backs the same proposal, now it’s “conservative.” So what do the labels “liberal” and “conservative” actually signify? Often, nothing at all. Gives Talk Radio something to blabber about all day, though.

    2. avatar Brad Kozak says:

      Nope. The questions are not repeated. The methodology was designed by a Liberal professor and is accepted by the PolySci community as an accurate and scientifically-valid way to test. The questions were designed specifically to test in real-world situations (in other words “how would you vote”) as opposed to sound byte, hot-button issues like “abortion” or “funding for the arts.” The quiz is amazingly accurate. And like other tests (say, any personality test on the market today), the number of similar questions helps to eliminate false-positives or false-negatives.

      No, I think your reluctance to embrace the test comes more from the conclusions the test helps to reveal.

      1. avatar Dan says:

        The test is total crap. It assumes everyone is on a linear scale from right to left. This alone completely discredits it.

        In addition, the method is biased. Almost every question was about a bill that Democrats overwhelmingly favored. I recall 2 that Republicans favored and Democrats opposed, and one favored by both parties. In every case, if the bill was favored by Democrats, the answer bubbles were ordered favor-duh-oppose, and if the bill was opposed by Democrats, the order was oppose-duh-favor.

        Using congressional bills and asking whether you would favor or oppose, tells nothing about how I would react in a “real world situation.” I’m not in Congress. I wouldn’t be in Congress.

        Questions about the minutiae of how stimulus funds are spent reveal only the bias of the questioner. The underlying assertion is that there is no sane person would question whether the government should be spending trillions on “stimulus”, but only how. That of course the government should pay for health care, the only question is whether that includes abortions.

        Trying to divine my political bent by “how I would vote”, neglects the fact that I wouldn’t vote. I wouldn’t do that to you. And my opposition to federal funding of abortion no more puts me on the right than my opposition to Guantanamo puts me on
        left. And averaging them doesn’t put me in moderateland.

        I reject your false continuum.

        1. avatar Brad Kozak says:

          Wow, Dan. You seem to have all the answers. Lemme help you out here. I don’t believe in the validity of Keynesian Economics, so I’d argue that ANY stimulus spending is a huge waste of money. To put it in personal terms, you can’t use your Master Card to pay off your Visa and expect to get outta debt. It’s that simple.

          The government has no business (Constitutional or otherwise) getting involved in the health care or insurance industries. (Ditto for auto manufacturing and banking/investments.) The best way to fix the health care ‘crisis’ is to get the government completely out of it, and allow an unencumbered free market to fix itself.

          There are exceptions to EVERY rule. “Conservative” and “Liberal” are labels we slap on people like shorthand, in order to better understand their general positions. They are rarely accurate when it comes down to the detail view. For instance, I’m a Conservative, but I believe the government has no business in the boardroom OR the bedroom. That’s not consistent with the popular notion of either Conservatism, the Tea Party, or Libertarianism. Oh, and I’m a Christian who likes a lot of what Ayn Rand has to say with her philosophy of Objectivism – which renounces religion. Contradictory? Not really. So you can reject my “false continuum” all you like. It won’t stop me – or anybody else – from using labels and terms to try to make sense of chaos.

      2. avatar Totenglocke says:

        Bull. The questions are repeated and asking “How would you vote on this one issue” and not asking the more important “WHY would you vote that way?” is what makes it useless.

        You can gather 20 different people who all would vote no on a given bill, but you’ll likely get at least 10 different reasons for WHY they voted no.

        My reluctance to embrace the test is that it’s useless and doesn’t resemble reality in any way.

  3. avatar Magoo says:

    Media bias is in the eye of the beholder. Complaints about it remind me of the conspiracy theorists who used to rail against “subliminal advertising.” These folks could look at a billboard and “see” naked ladies disguised in a glass of ice cubes. Of course, the naked ladies were in their dirty little minds, not on the billboards.

    1. avatar Brad Kozak says:

      Magoo: read that whole “circular logic” thing again. If there’s bias, and you’re unaware of it, how can you detect bias in your own perceptions?

  4. avatar Magoo says:

    Brad Kozak says: “Bias is distortion, and distortion is wrong. The only effective way to fight that bias is to recognize it exists and to try and determine how much is out there, so we can filter what we hear, see and read, factoring in that bias recognition, so we won’t be quite so influenced by bias (at least not without a fight.)”

    No, the solution is to develop critical reading and listening skills, so you can recognize spin and tilt where you find them — to the left or the right, or up, down, or sideways. Your thinking is based on the theory that “bias” is any view that disagrees with your truth. Boy, is that not how it works.

    1. avatar IndyEric says:

      Bias, ignorance and stupidity is when one believes there can be several versions of the “truth.”

    2. avatar Brad Kozak says:

      No, Magoo. There are facts – for instance that they ATF let guns go a-walkin’ across the border to Mexico to those they knew were drug thugs. Then there’s opinion – WHY did the ATF do this? And then there’s bias “It started with Bush, so it’s his fault,” or “Obama wants to use this as an excuse to take our guns.”

      Critical reading, listening skills, coupled with a willingness to analyze and challenge what you hear as something other than Gospel is essential. Not everybody has developed those skills. But you can also demand more from your media. We get what we’re willing to tolerate, and I believe we tolerate too much.

      Your knee-jerk reaction to a story in Fox News is likely to be “they are spinning this!” just as mine would be the same if I hear it on MSNBC. That’s all well and good, but I try to go beyond my initial reaction and get to the truth. Obviously, you have to throw out pundit commentary, people like Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity are cheerleaders for their respective positions. But the “hard news” people exhibit bias, too. That takes a lot more effort to get past bias, because theirs is far more subtle. Just deciding which stories to cover, regardless of HOW you cover them can spring from bias. For instance, the recent bankruptcy of Solyndra was completely ignored by NBC and MSNBC. I’d think that a “green jobs” company that received almost half a billion dollars in tax dollars going belly-up is news, especially given the President’s ties to the company and his cheerleading for them. THAT’S the kind of bias that ultimately sways opinion. If your only news outlet is NBC, you might never hear of that failure, and consequently assume that the green jobs thing is a huge success.

      THAT is how it works.

      1. avatar Ralph says:

        Brad, you’re missing the point. Who cares about left-right, liberal-conservative, progressive-libertarian and any other such labels? Right and wrong are what count. I propose the only true test would be the Magold Test. We ask Magold a question and if we disagree with him, we’re right. I wouldn’t believe Magold if he says that the sun rises in he East.

        1. avatar Brad Kozak says:

          He’s just pissed he couldn’t slam me for improper use of the term “begs the question.” Heh.

  5. avatar Magoo says:

    All that is fine — more or less, whatever, close enough, I suppose — but now you have abandoned the premise of the book.

  6. avatar Ralph says:

    Bernard Goldberg wrote a strong and entertaining series of books on liberal bias in television. And don’t hand me the party line bullsh!t about conservative bias in talk radio. Rush, Hannity and the rest don’t claim to be broadcasting news.

    Kudos to Bryant Gumbel and the producers of Real Sports for hiring Goldberg when the rest of the TV clowns wouldn’t touch him.

  7. avatar ihatetrees says:

    FYI, there’s an excellent pod cast interview with Groseclose at http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/

    What I find fascinating is how Groseclose considers politicians much more honorable than journalists in that the former at least acknowledge their biases. Good luck getting political opinions or voting info from j-skool types.

    We can only hope that layoffs and bankruptcies continue to creatively destroy the mainstream media world.

  8. avatar Mike Gray says:

    For those interested in the methodology, here is the paper I believe the book was expanded from:

    http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/groseclose/pdfs/MediaBias.pdf

    I’ve just skimmed it thus far; but the most interesting point I saw was (paraphrasing) “Bias (as defined by the study) does not indicate untruthfulness.”

    I’ll try and write some more later after I’ve crunched the paper.

  9. avatar Brad Kozak says:

    This response/clarification from Tim Groseclose on my story here on TTAG:

    Thanks!

    Two minor things, though: First, my coauthor, Jeff Milyo, is conservative. Second, I find that the entire U.S. media (including talk radio and Fox News) has an average SQ [Ed. note: SQ = “Slant Quotient”] of about 58.5 – only about 8 points to the left. (But if you compare SQs to the NATURAL views of theAmerican voter, i.e. Clarity, then the bias is about 58.5 – 30, or about 28.5).

  10. avatar HAVEGUN says:

    Not that it matters, most all negative choices (Republican) are at bottom. On questions 4, 21, 39, & 38, positive Republican choices are at the bottom.

    I only notice because when in school taking multiple choice tests and seeing a pattern always was a distraction.

    Over all though, it was an interesting quiz.

    One problem, is maybe it would have been better had not the Democratic/Republican votes not be included with the question? It did influence one answer for me, only because it gave me pause to think a little more.

    If I knew how long it would take me, would have never started it.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

button to share on facebook
button to tweet
button to share via email